A new fourth cousin…

A very overdue update on my last post where I talked about a big discovery thanks to Ancestry’s ‘shaky leaves’ hints.  Well I checked out the records cited, the research seemed correct and I made contact with the owner of the tree on Ancestry. He is my fourth cousin, a descendant of Jean, sister of my great great grandmother, Barbara Sinclair. Jean immigrated to Australia with her father, Thomas Sinclair, step-mother and half siblings in the 1850s. She and Barbara wrote to each other and swapped photographs over many years it seems. The photographs and letters have not survived house clearances in Orkney sadly. But my newly-discovered fourth cousin in Australia has shared some wonderful photographs as well as a lot of information. (What’s a fourth cousin? Check foot of page)


This is my favourite photo. ItPhoto of x2 great grandparents and 2 youngest daughters shows my great great grandmother, Barbara Millar Sinclair (1826-1914), my great great grandfather, Nicol Slater (1820-1875) and their two youngest daughters, Catherine, Mrs Andrew Robertson, (1865-1945) and Barbara, Mrs Thomas Clouston, (1869-1961).  It is the first photo of Nicol I have ever seen, so I am thrilled. I have a photo of Barbara, his wife, as an old woman, but what stuns me about this one is that my uncle is so like her. We have always thought that “he takes after his father’s side”. There is no copy in Orkney as far as I know yet the photo sent to Barbara’s sister Jean thousands of miles away in Australia back in the 1870s has been preserved. And it seems there may be another in the USA, probably sent to Nicol Slater’s cousin William Slater who also  immigrated.

So, yes, Ancestry shaky leaf hints can be very worthwhile so long as you and your contact have both done your research well. I’ve been sending photos and other information to Australia too for these things should never be one-way. I am reluctant to share much with people who give little or nothing in return. Generally, I’ve found third, and now, fourth, cousins to be great contacts.

Fourth cousin: we share great great great grandparents – Thomas Sinclair is our mutual x3 great grandfather. First cousins share grandparents, second cousins share great grandparents, third cousins share great great grandparents)

Ancestry shaky leaves… shaky foundations?

Ancestry shaky leavesIf you have a family tree on Ancestry or use Family Tree Maker, you will have seen the Ancestry shaky leaves. These are hints that there are records or other family trees on Ancestry that could be relevant to your ancestor. But are they helpful? Can you trust them?

Last week, I did a rare check and, to my surprise, found two very useful hints.

One hint referred me to a tree that included my great great grandmother’s sister, Margaret, her husband and daughter. An elderly relative had said that Margaret immigrated to America; this tree said Canada. But birth and marriage dates and places matched, the daughter’s fairly unusual middle name, Leask, was included and a son born after the family left Scotland had a distinctive family name, William Moncrieff. After checking some facts,  I’ve been in contact with the owner of theAncestrey shaky leaves tree hints tree and am satisfied that we both have the same people. (Of the eight trees in the hint, this was the only match worth investigating.)

Another hint, also from a public tree, took me down a much more surprising route: a x3 great grandfather, born 1800 or earlier, whom I have hardly researched, turned up dead in Australia, as did his daughter, whose name and birth date I knew. Initially, I was very sceptical, the best way to be with these public tree hints, especially as he was also said to have married again. His name, Thomas Sinclair, is not unusual and it is very easy to link the wrong people when you find a name in marriage records. The tree included some Scottish census links which I followed up: both made sense and one probably explains why Thomas’s daughter, my x2 great grandmother, got married where she did. After checking out some online baptism and marriage indexes, the likelihood that this is the right man increased. I now have a tasklist including: check the original baptism, marriage and census records at ScotlandsPeople and National Records of Scotland (some are not from the established Church of Scotland); order a copy of the Australian death registration. Once I have seen those, I hope I will be able to confirm that this is my Thomas Sinclair.

In general, treat Ancestry shaky leaves that lead to other member trees with extreme caution. You need to investigate further, check the original records, not just transcripts or indexes, and verify the information for yourself. Don’t take someone else’s word for it or you could be building shaky foundations for your own tree and adding to the many error-filled trees on Ancestry. This type of hint is not a substitute for your own research. I’m really pleased with my two links from last week but they make sense because I’ve already built a solid foundation.

Shaky leaves and actual records

Once you click on the person, you find out just how many hints  there are. Ancestry shaky leaves hintFor Alexander there were three in total, one for member trees and two for records. Shaky leaves linking to actual records on Ancestry are potentially much more accurate, very accurate sometimes but they are only as good as the information you already have in your tree. If that information is wrong, the hints will also be wrong. For Alexander there were two census hints, 1891 and 1881 (below), both spot on.Census hint




If I didn’t already know his birth date or his parents’ names this hint could be very useful but I’d then need to check the original birth and census records at ScotlandsPeople. (Some of the original records are on Ancestry so you can investigate straightaway.) The sibling’s name could also help with identification through other records.  Sometimes, it will be very obvious that a record is not relevant, for example if you know for sure that your Alexander Slater was born in Orkney, Scotland in August 1881 but the hint is about a John Harris born in Tredegar, Wales in 1881 then it is unlikely to be the same person.

It’s important to understand too that by no means all of Ancestry’s many record sets/databases are included in the hints. You will have to search them yourself. Ancestry has a good video explaining how to use hints (some comments, on censuses for example, refer to American records rather than UK).

Ancestry shaky leaves – use them carefully, do your own research and they can be a real asset. But check throughly before you attach them to your tree, don’t allow the thrill of discovery to carry you away!


The black sheep of the family?

My great great uncle Nicol Slater was the black sheep of the family. He left his young family in Orkney, went off to Canada and never returned. The name Nicol, shared with his father and grandfather, was not used again for two generations.

I’d assumed that he left and never contacted his family again so I was astonished, and very pleased, to see him listed, with his siblings, in a series of sasines (property transactions) from 1920, almost 30 years after he emigrated. And not just his name, but also where he lived: Ceylon, Martin County, Minnesota, USA. So he was still in contact with the family after all. My research antennae were really twitching now and I had to know more.

Born in 1861, Nicol was the seventh child of Nicol and Barbara S(c)later. His grandfather, Nicol, who died in 1875, left him the small farm of Nether Scows, Orphir, as he was his ‘name son’, but Nicol became a carpenter and then farmed at the Glebe, Orphir, before he emigrated. He married Margaret Stevenson in 1885 and by the time he left Glasgow, bound for Winnipeg, Manitoba, on 13 June 1891, she was pregnant with their fourth child. Far from ideal, but was he going to find a better life for them all?

If that was the aim, it is certainly not how it was conveyed to later generations. Margaret, Nicol’s wife, died in 1907. On her death registration ‘phthisis exhaustion’ (TB) was noted as the cause of death; family lore attributed it to a broken heart. Late in 1908, the two sons, aged 17 and 19, set off for New Zealand. Thomas, the older son, was a rifleman in the 3rd New Zealand Rifle Brigade and died at Passchendaele (3rd battle of Ypres) on 12 October 1917. The two sisters, Barbara and Maggie, remained in Orkney.

Nicol himself moved from Canada to the USA in 1892 (1894 or 1900 according to two censuses) and had his own business as a carpenter and contractor in Minnesota as early as 1900. By the 1910 census his status had changed from married to widower, again evidence of contact with family in Orkney. And where was he in both the 1910 and 1920 censuses? Ceylon, Martin County, Minnesota of course. Curiously, in the 1900, 1910 and 1920 censuses, his first name was recorded as Nickolas or Nicklas, but taking all the information I was collecting together, it definitely was him.

In 1921, aged 60, he married Martha Harris (née Fecker), a German widow, at Waterloo, Black Hawk, Iowa. Nicol in 1925 Directory LAThere is an entry for him and Martha in a 1925 directory of the Santa Monica area, California. In the 1930 US census, they were listed in Los Angeles, California, where he died in August 1942.

With greater knowledge of his story, was he really a black sheep? Leaving a young family with one unborn child does not reflect well on him and I also wonder why his sons went to New Zealand rather than joining him in the States. On the other hand, it was not unusual for the husband emigrate first and then come back for his wife and family. Rightly or wrongly, part of me warms to him in the hard, lonely task of establishing himself in a new country. Perhaps there was a restlessness too, farmer’s son, carpenter, farmer, needing more than 1890s Orkney could offer? Did he ever wonder about Robert, the son he’d never known, and the other three children who were so young when he left?

As someone said, there are three sides to any story: what he said, what she said and the truth.

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